Your First Days of School

I’m no Harry Wong, but after teaching for nine years, I have some very important suggestions for the first day(s) of school for both new teachers and the veterans among us.

I’ve been accused of being a reductionist in my views of education; I make complex issues too simple for some. I don’t think my reductionist view is nearly as bad as some of my critics point out, but I thought I should start with admitting their view. I take such a simple view toward education because I think most educators overthink education, making complex issues even more difficult to resolve. We, after all, are simply helping youth along a path of discovery. It’s pretty simple.

Let us begin with two scenarios.

Scenario #1- The First Faculty Meeting

One of your first teacher days back in the coming weeks will be for your first faculty meeting. I’ve taken part in these meetings for nine years, with many different principals and variations. Here’s what happens often. The administrator introduces new staff (usually with an ice-breaker of sorts), shares what is new, reviews the important rules for the school, and reviews expectations for teachers and students. I have experienced these meetings take upwards of three hours. I’m a pretty good listener, but in that time, there is information I will forget and have to revisit. My colleagues and I, knowing these meetings are long, are not excited for them. Yes, we understand the meetings are important, but they are long and difficult to get through.

Scenario #2- A Two-Hour Business Dinner

Teachers do not get to many business dinners, but let’s follow this thought example through. If you are invited to dinner with a new boss, you likely arrive at that meeting a bit apprehensive with many questions in your mind. What can I expect from this boss? Will my past practices be good enough or will I need to change? Will the boss like me? Will we get along? With these questions, and likely many others, what would happen if your new boss spent three-quarters of the time, 1.5 hours of your dinner, lecturing you on his expectations for you? What is your impression of your boss then?

Returning to reality, your first day of school with students is right around the corner. If the first day of school is like scenario #1, what good is it for students? Students who are required to mostly sit through seven hours of ice-breakers, new changes, rules, and expectations will likely forget most of them. This follows the same logic of why teachers should not lecture all day. If you don’t like full-day of lecture-based professional development, DO NOT DO THIS TO YOUR STUDENTS! Especially on the first day of school.

In scenario #2, the boss loses a great opportunity to make an awesome first impression. If you get talked to in this scenario, you are likely to think of your boss as autocratic. You might feel like your opinion is worthless. You might even feel like your boss expects you to act unprofessionally; otherwise why would he lecture you on his expectations and rules? You don’t break rules. This isn’t necessary.

You only have one chance to make a first impression on your students. Please think carefully about the impression you want to make.

I do not profess that these suggestions work for everyone, but below are some suggestions I have found very successful. I encourage you to think critically about them and whether they will work for you.

1. Get personal– Your students want to meet you. You want to get to know them. Make a strong first impression on the first day of school, the first moment you get to meet the students. Stand in the hallway all day. I like greeting students at the door, handshakes, hellos, simple conversations. I like to welcome students into our classroom. I’m not a fan of ice-breaker activities, but whatever it takes for you to develop a personal relationship with students, please do it. I put together a “Who is Dr. Staub” video slideshow for students [this year’s isn’t done yet…]. It establishes immediately that I am a person, not just a teacher. I encourage them to share their personal stories with me over the coming days.

2. Limit the rules– I teach high school (11th grade to be specific), so I know this applies differently to me. The more rules you have, the more it sets the tone that you expect the students to break the rules. Think about which rules are critical. I go over NO RULES the first day. In fact, I don’t list rules in a syllabus, hang them on my wall, or expect parents and students to sign. In fact, I have very few rules beyond: RESPECT EACH OTHER. I used to have laundry-lists to go over with students and get signed, and I found I would rather simply expect students to do good. When students break my expectation of respect, I simply talk to them. If the behavior continues, then I increase my behavior modification plans. It’s not about rules; it’s a personal approach to understanding students. Isn’t that what we want?

3. Don’t assign seats– Why do you need to? Here are the main arguments: (a) It helps me get to know the students. If you focus on a personal approach the first few weeks, greeting students at the door every day, you’ll learn names much quicker. (b) It helps control the classroom. Again, this presumes students will act up. If you let them pick their own seats and they act up, change their seats. Don’t presume they will act poorly. (c) It is required for my sub plans. I haven’t had seating charts for two years. Students are creatures of habit- we all are. Within two weeks, students will sit in the same seats anyway. Make a seating chart from their habits. You will likely not be absent by then anyway. If you are, think about what a substitute does. They READ aloud all names for role anyway. How helpful is a seating chart? If your students understand the responsibility of choosing their own seats, the students will act better for the substitute then they will for you. (d) If I make a seating chart, then I can move their seats. I need to mix the class from time to time. Don’t forget, you are the teacher. If you don’t have a seating chart, you can still require students to sit in specific areas. This is actually easier to do when students have a choice most of the time. While I am talking about seats, AVOID SITTING STUDENTS IN ROWS. We live in a connected world. Why isolate students from the genius around them?

4. Teach something– get the students involved- Give the students a positive reason for coming to school. Get into something worthwhile. Heck, make your first day your A+, best lesson of the year. Remember, this is about first impressions. Go BIG. Set the bar high for yourself. Demand the same expectations from your students in everything they do. Wow them!

5. Connect– Let students know how and when you are available, at school and electronically. Invite them to connect with you how you are comfortable. I have a school-specific Twitter and Gmail account. I allow students to chat and tweet me, professionally, at any time. Students who know you are available will come to you more often, even if this is just the hours you are available at school. Send an email home to parents sharing the same information. The more connected your classroom is, the better year you will have.

6. Refine your message– You will say something the first day of school. Practice it, and make sure it aligns with your vision and big goals for your classroom this year. This is why I do not go over rules. I feel rules set the bar too low. Rules tell students what NOT to do. Rather, here are some of the messages I want to work into my message to the class in the first week of school.

“I don’t care about your grade- NOT AT ALL. I care about how much you learn.”

“I expect to fail a lot this year, attempting new practices I am not comfortable with. I expect you to fail too. You cannot push yourself to new horizons by remaining with what is comfortable. If you fail, keep trying. You are only a failure when you give up trying to get better.”

“Effort creates intelligence. If you don’t give 100%, do not expect to get 100% return. It doesn’t work that way.”

“Your learning is personal, but you need others to help you reach your success. We learn best when we learn together.”

So, there it is. Please think carefully about what you do in the first days of school. Do not set the standards and bar too low. Do not talk at your students. Be engaging. Be personal. Smile. Laugh. Challenge their perceptions on what is known. Set the bar high. Repeat this model every day, and you will have the best year of your career.


20 thoughts on “Your First Days of School

  1. drhelgeson August 13, 2013 / 4:44 pm

    These are great suggestions. It is so important to form relationships with students right away. Enjoy your year!

    • Justin Staub August 13, 2013 / 5:25 pm

      Thank you. I believe learning should be personal, not institutionalized. We need to be careful which message we send on the first days of school.

  2. Patrick Diemer (@diemerpatrick) August 13, 2013 / 8:55 pm

    This is great! Helped collect the ideas that have been swirling around in my head for a couple of months into a coherent plan.

    • Justin Staub August 14, 2013 / 7:52 am

      Thanks Patrick. I think education is one profession that is better carried out when we share ideas with each other. I’m glad my ideas resonate with you.

  3. Connie Sanchez,MS, EdM August 14, 2013 / 7:04 am

    I’m a bit of a reductionist also and love your insight. I’m starting at a new school and think this makes perfect sense. All-Star lesson day I sounds great.

    • Justin Staub August 14, 2013 / 7:51 am

      Thanks, Connie. I hope your first day is spectacular. I would love to hear how it goes.

  4. Rex Webb August 15, 2013 / 7:27 am

    Hi Dr. Staub,

    I am very interested in your views on reductionism in education. I am an education veteran of 20 plus years and I do not ever recall of hearing about it. I do agree with your premise that there is a large number of educators who over think the process. I agree that the first days of a new year in school are critical, for administrators, teachers and support staff, and students.

    That said I would like to share with you what my colleagues and I do every year. Please keep in mind that I am a middle school teacher of 7th and 8th graders.

    Once we get by the requisite first two days of teacher inservice we get to welcome our students. Our first three days are spent on team building activities. We do not spend any time on academic issues. We have found that this goes a long way in preparing our students to assume a role in our school society. Within the dynamics of our team building activities our students get an opportunity to familiarize themselves with other students that they might not under normal circumstances associate with.

    Once we complete these three days we find that our students are much more receptive to what we would like to impart to them.


    Rex Webb

    • Justin Staub August 15, 2013 / 7:30 am

      Rex, I love it. At way teachers can remember our most valuable assets are the people in front of us, maybe we will focus more on them and not what we need to teach. The teaching is important, but without making it personal, the learning will be worthless.

      Thank you for your contribution.

  5. Becki August 15, 2013 / 9:09 am

    This is a very interesting post. I’m just taking my first tentative steps into education (working as a Learning Support Assistant for 10-14 year olds) whilst I am studying for my MA. It will be interesting to see how my school starts the school year in comparison to your ideas – you seem to have similar ideas to me. I always found the seating plans at my old school rather frustrating – it was always boy/girl/boy/girl, and I always ended up next to the kid who wanted to disrupt the class.

    • Justin Staub August 16, 2013 / 11:42 am

      Becki, good luck this year! Teaching is an awesome vocation!

  6. nicki embly August 16, 2013 / 11:09 am

    Loved the article. 15 years ago I didn’t have a seating chart and I didn’t require students to reaise their hands…after all you don’t raise your hand to have mashed potatoes passed at dinner time. My 7th graders revisted taking turns and being active listeners. My colleagues hated me because when they changed classes the kids would “forget” to sit in assigned seats and raise their hands.

    • Justin Staub August 16, 2013 / 11:41 am

      I never thought about the “raising hands” issue. How odd, in retrospect. Thanks, Nicki, for your passion to your seventh grade students. I am sure you changed many lives!

  7. Nina August 18, 2013 / 11:59 am

    Wonderful post and great insights! Showing and using power is a real problem in schools. Learning happens in interactions, and students are much more inclined to learn with teachers who don’t try to shove the knowledge (or rules) down their throats. Force feeding creates aversions for even the most delicious food. And, if you expect students to misbehave, I guarantee they will fulfill your wish!

    Successful learning experiences are built in interactions and fostered with open and honest communication.


  8. Sue Gregory August 20, 2013 / 3:43 pm

    My class rules have always been the three “R’s” – Respect, Responsibility, Realization. And yes, I only make the seating chart after they have chosen their own seats.

    • Justin Staub August 20, 2013 / 6:10 pm

      Thanks, Sue. I appreciate your kind words.

  9. Jan Williams August 25, 2013 / 2:06 pm

    Great ideas…no matter how many years one teaches, we still need to tweak what we do…thanks for sharing!

  10. Peter Pappas (@edteck) August 29, 2013 / 6:43 am

    I enjoyed your post. It drives a stake into the heart of the typical back-to-school opener. Imagine the poor student sitting through a full day of listening to teachers explain their class rules, hand out books and assign seats. You provide a thoughtful guide to all the other things a teacher could be communicating to students – making a positive first impression.

    RE: “#4 Teach something” – here’s a post on a lesson I used for years “First Day of School? Don’t Pass Out Books – Problem Solve.”

    Have a great school year

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